Last week the kingdom began to go public with the calling of the first four disciples of Jesus. You may remember I said that next came the crowds. Those who wanted to follow and those who wanted to challenge the ministry of Jesus. This morning we will look at something of both of these scenarios as a large crowd gathers to hear his teaching. Jesus calls another disciple only this time the man called Levi does not fit in with the expectations and approval of the teachers of the law and the opposition to Jesus is born. Mark begins in chapter two to show us how almost right from the word go opposition to Jesus and the desire to follow him lived side by side in equal strength. What may surprise the reader is that the opposition appears to be sated within the religious authorities and the desire to follow is found in those who are at best on the fringes or more likely out with recognised establishment. Prior to our reading there is the recorded case of Jesus healing the man lowered down through the roof to him as his friends look for healing for him. In response to such faith Jesus says, ‘your sins are forgiven.’ This would be the blue touch paper that would set the fireworks off for the teachers of the law. ‘only God can forgive,’ they cried. ‘This man is blaspheming,’ they announced. And the crowds who witnessed it said they had never witnessed such a thing and they praised God. The contrast and the conflict has begun. It does not diminish any by the time we get to our reading.
Reading Mark 2:13-17
Levi collects taxes on behalf of Herod Antipas. This was all the qualification required to be a very disliked man among the people. Add to that he had to mix with the gentiles in order to carry out his work then he also fell foul of the religious orthodox figures. Calling him to follow was offensive enough but Jesus goes further still and sits down to eat with this man and his friends to eat and given how I have described his position within the society, his friends would have also been generally shunned by all others. What grace, what wisdom, what compassion is displayed here in the actions of Jesus as he calls this man Levi. Grace shown to a sinner and if there were league tables of sinners then according to the times and the people of his society Levi would most definitely have been premier league material, right up there amongst the greatest of all sinners. Wisdom that calls a man who speaks both Greek and Aramaic, the main languages that most people would be speaking. Compassion that shows to everyone that the love of Jesus goes beyond what is seen on the outside only. Jesus wants to and does look beyond that and sees into our hearts. And the proof is there as we read Levi left everything, got up and followed him. Instead of condemning and avoiding sinners as the teachers of the law did. Jesus reaches out, Jesus calls on them to follow, ultimately Jesus shows them the love of God in action that cannot be mandated through law.
Reading Mark 2:18-22
The point of contention here is to be found within the laws surrounding fasting in particular but in the coming together of the old ways and the new ways more generally. The Day of Atonement was the one day when fasting was to be observed. But as was the case in other matters the Pharisees attempts to show how righteous they were fasted on many other occasions. What we have here in this episode could be interpretation. Given Jesus statement surrounding the bridegroom and him being with them or not opens a window for John’s disciples to fast as he has been taken from them and is languishing in prison with no great prospect of ever being released to join with his disciples again so arguably they are fasting just as Jesus describes is right for them and therefor it can equally be claimed that it is right for the disciples of Jesus to continue eating and rejoicing as he is with them still but the time will come when he will be taken from them. Fasting was done in times of sorrow or out of fear. Jesus is not saying fasting in itself is wrong.
He fasted for forty days and nights alone in the desert. Fasting should not be used as a way of making yourself seem more righteous. It is not an action that needs to be taken because it is recorded in law that it must be done. When and if you decide to fast it must be for the right reasons and it must come from the heart within. This is where Jesus expands on the old ways and the new ways that are unfolding before them. Although not connected with fasting in itself how appropriate that we are lead to think about doing the old things in new ways and how the shape of things needs to change to enable the new ways to flourish. For some time now people within the church have been advocating the need for new ways. Now over the last ten months and who knows how many more to come we are faced again with the question. ‘how do we do church in a new way?’ Not centred on how do we kill off the old because we are fed up with it but rather it is how do we give birth to the new that allows our church, in whatever form it may take, to stay alive.